- ISBN-13: 9781101870228
- ISBN-10: 1101870222
- Publisher: Pantheon Books
- Publish Date: December 2016
- Page Count: 224
- Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 0.9 pounds
Well Read: A literary breakup
Literary feuds can become the stuff of legend. Often sparked by equal measures of arrogance and insecurity, and fueled by wit and vitriol, the best provide great sideline entertainment for fans and detractors alike. Mary McCarthy telling Dick Cavett that “every word [Lillian Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’ ” prompted a lawsuit that only ended because the cantankerous plaintiff died. The ever-fractious Gore Vidal launched one feud by claiming, “Truman made lying an art form—a minor art form” and another when he compared Norman Mailer to Charles Manson (Mailer later punched Vidal at a dinner party).
A somewhat less-known, more rarefied battle destroyed the once companionable relationship between the novelist Vladimir Nabokov and the eminent American man of letters Edmund Wilson. In The Feud, journalist Alex Beam chronicles the imbroglio, which came to a head when the Russian writer published his by-most-accounts turgid translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and Wilson dared to rake it over the coals in The New York Review of Books. But, as Beam—a former Moscow correspondent and current columnist for The Boston Globe—makes clear in this slender, yet thoroughly researched and sprightly told account of the events, the rivalry was long percolating. It was spurred by many factors, not least of which were Nabokov’s monumental ego and Wilson’s envy watching the Lolita author’s literary star ascend as his own slid down.
The men became friends soon after Nabokov arrived in the U.S. in 1940, a refugee from both Bolshevik Russia and Nazi-overrun Europe. Wilson, a cultural mandarin who held sway over public literary tastes from his perch at The New Yorker, did much behind-the-scenes maneuvering to get the émigré writing assignments and to promote his work among the literary establishment. Wilson was a Russophile, and he cherished the opportunity to discuss the language and its literature with this native son, although the two sparred over politics because the American was a supporter of the Soviet Union.
Things slowly soured between Wilson and Nabokov. The Russian took umbrage over the fact that Wilson, America’s pre-eminent critic, rarely reviewed his books, and Beam suggests that for the most part Wilson did not like Nabokov’s fiction. Wilson was upfront in telling Nabokov that he did not like Lolita, and he may have been a bit dismayed by its extraordinary reception, especially because his own “sex” novel, Memoirs of Hecate County, failed to spark a similar response among critics or readers. Things got uglier when Wilson championed Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which Nabokov loathed. Their friendship cooled, but ice turned to fire when Nabokov published his translation of Onegin. Many critics panned it, but it was Wilson’s full frontal attack that pitted the former friends in a fierce public clash that, to quote this book’s subtitle, saw “the end of a beautiful friendship.”
Beam goes into exacting detail about the subtleties involved in translating Pushkin’s famously untranslatable text. These explications may not interest all readers, though he does enliven them with a soupçon of Nabokovian wordplay. What will interest readers, though, are the well-drawn, often unflattering portraits of two prickly, self-assured giants of 20th-century literature, engaged in childish, if sharp-witted, verbal fisticuffs.